Can You Identify Narcissists From Their Signatures?
Size does seem to matter when it comes to narcissism and signatures.
Posted March 6, 2018
The idea that handwriting reveals mysterious secrets about an individual’s personality is a long-cherished view with, so far, little evidence to support it. A friend prints precisely and even artistically, and you assume there’s some perfectionism at work. A boss signs an important memo with great flourish, and you figure she’s just trying to show off her own self-importance. Then you see the extremely large signature a politician uses to sign a bill into law, and you’re convinced that there’s more than a touch of narcissism at play. Given how entertaining it is to develop your own theories about handwriting and personality, you may therefore find it disappointing to learn that there’s hardly a shred of scientific evidence to support your speculations — at least, so far.
As stated by Universidad de la República (Montevideo, Uruguay) psychologist Alvaro Mailhos and colleagues (2016), “the few studies that have addressed the association between handwriting characteristics and personality traits, provide very weak to no evidence in support of the inferring power of graphology." At a recent meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Philadelphia, PA (March 2018), Albright University’s Amanda Elliott (an undergraduate researcher) presented a poster in which she investigated the perception of personal attributes based on handwriting, including size and legibility. She concluded that the larger the handwriting, the more generous the individual is perceived as being. Those with neater signatures were perceived as more confident and open to experience, as well as more intelligent. This was not a study of actual personality and its relationship to handwriting. Elliott did, however, note that there had been very little research on the topic of handwriting analysis at all, much less on this particular angle.
The Uruguayan team themselves dug into some of the classic studies on the topic conducted in the 1970s assessing measurable attributes of signatures, such as their size and their relationship to self-esteem and status. For women, but not for men, the signature size (corrected for the number of letters) was positively related to the tendency to dominate others. More recently, experimental evidence was gathered in perhaps a more indirect fashion. Participants exposed to a “positive affect priming task” were led to feel good, after which their signatures were larger than if they had not been exposed to a condition that made them feel happy.
Narcissism, self-esteem, and dominance, then, appear to be prime candidates for personality attributes related to signature size. Regarding signatures as “representative of the self” (p. 44), Mailhos and his team hypothesized that there would be a positive association between signature size and narcissism, measuring signature size in a way that would control for the actual letters (size and number) in a person’s name. They operationalized signature size as the area of the minimal rectangle, or “bounding box,” which surrounds the signature and the “convex hull,” which is a measure of the signature’s arc from left to right. They also controlled for the number of characters in the printed name, the average character area, and signature style (i.e., monograms or extended signatures).
With just slightly under 300 undergraduate participants (equally divided into male and female), the Uruguayan research team gathered printed and written signatures on the study’s informed consent page. The researchers then proceeded to digitize the signatures and subjected them to analysis to derive measures of signature size. Narcissistic personality traits were assessed via a Spanish-language, standard narcissism personality inventory. Participants also rated themselves on aggressive and social forms of dominance in a measure known as the Intrasexual Competition Scale (i.e., would you try to dominate members of your own sex through force or friendliness?). Finally, participants rated their self-esteem on a standard 10-item measure translated into Spanish.
After determining the contribution of such factors as age, sex, and all personality measures, social dominance turned out to be the most important predictor of signature size across both men and women. Looking at more depth into sociable dominance, Mailhos et al. noted that people high in this quality show their dominance in ways that reflect a positive attitude toward other people. They like to take a central position in whatever group they’re a part of and have a healthy dose of self-esteem. You can think of the people high in this quality as the ones to volunteer first among a group of random strangers to organize everyone into teams, if that’s what the task requires. They are also the ones to raise their hands first in a group when it’s time for questions, and they show no hesitation when it comes to making a beeline to talk to the most important person in the room. The aggressively dominant, by contrast, seek to express their dominance by stepping over everyone else in hostile and angry ways. The large signatures sizes of the socially dominant, as the authors note, “could be interpreted as a signal of the inclination to stand out and occupy a central position within a group."
Turning next to narcissism, the findings showed that when it comes to signatures, size does matter, but only for women. Women higher in narcissism, in fact, had larger signatures than their less narcissistic counterparts; the same did not hold true for men. The authors had some concerns that the findings may have reflected a degree of sampling error, but the findings did concur with earlier research on signature embellishments and narcissism. In these previous studies, women higher in narcissism (but not men) were likely to add exclamation points and underlining to their signatures. The authors speculated that highly narcissistic women also are more likely to embellish their appearance with adornments such as jewelry and makeup. Handwritten signatures become another type of adornment. Because such narcissistic traits as egocentrism, arrogance, and hostility are tolerated, if not encouraged, in male leaders, women who are high in narcissism may have to resort to such socially accepted channels as larger and fancier signatures to gain the attention they so desperately seek.
Another intriguing suggestion that the Uruguayan researchers propose is that women may be more motivated to produce readable signatures than are men. It’s possible that women feel they need to write their names in a way that others can read to be sure that they are recognized. Men may feel less of an obligation to state explicitly their identities in their signatures, and therefore scribble away with abandon.
It’s important to keep in mind that the present study looked only at signature size and not at other aspects of handwriting, nor did it examine handwriting in general. Furthermore, the authors did not attempt to determine if other features of handwriting were predicted by personality. Even so, the findings provide some fascinating insights into what drives people to sign their names in ways big and small.
You may not want to go so far as to ask a potential new relationship partner to sign his or her name before you'll get serious, but the present study suggests that you may gain some insights once you do take a peek when it’s time to sign.
Mailhos, A., Buunk, A. P., & Cabana, Á. (2016). Signature size signals sociable dominance and narcissism. Journal of Research in Personality, 6543-51. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2016.09.004